At 78, Dickie Rock is still packing out venues. He also tells Marjorie Brennan that he has no intention of retiring any time soon.
FOR many people in Ireland, Dickie Rock has been a constant in their lives.
For those who danced to him in his heyday, to younger generations who heard tales from their parents, the 78-year-old entertainer has been to the forefront of the Irish entertainment scene for seven decades. So what’s the secret to his longevity?
“The first thing for any performer or entertainer or singer is they have to love what they’re doing,” says Rock.
“The audience sees through falseness very easily. People say I’m fit but I look after myself. I owe that to the audience. But I was lucky to be born with good genes, too.
“I rehearse vocally every day, singing to backing tracks. I do exercises and I walk a lot. I get up early except when I’m working late at night.
“I like to have a full day — if I look at my watch at 10.30am, having been up from 7.30am, I love the feeling that there’s a full day ahead.”
In the 1960s, when ballrooms around Ireland shimmied to the sounds of the showbands, Rock and the Miami showband were the nearest thing Ireland had to The Beatles, and they got an equally enthusiastic response from audiences.
“I remember going to the Arcadia in Cork, I wasn’t long in the Miami Showband, it was 1963 — hard to believe it was that long ago — and I remember going on stage singing ‘I Can’t Get Used to Losing You.’
“It was a really high stage and the crowd were all below — and I had to sing it three or four times because they were so loud.”
Why does he think he has such a strong connection with audiences, particularly women?
“I had a manager once, Mick Quinn, and he said: ‘Richard, you don’t look like Elvis, but when you walk out people get fidgety’. I think it’s a metamorphosis that comes over me. If you met me it’d be ‘well . . .’ but when I hit the stage something happens.
“Take Frank Sinatra. He was five foot nine, and fairly insignificant-looking — but he had a magnificent voice, and when he hit the stage and walked out something happened.”
Rock has many highlights in a career that has spanned six decades.
One that particularly stands out is when he represented Ireland at the Eurovision in Luxembourg in 1966.
“I was engaged to Judy at the time, and her mother wouldn’t let her come,” he laughs.
“Those were different times. I asked her to come to Belfast with me to a gig and she said she could only go if her cousin came as chaperone.”
The singer has always had a reputation among fellow performers as a true professional, and there’s no doubt that this approach has helped sustain his career.
“It’s so important to respect your craft and do a professional show. I remember going to the Olympia ballroom in Waterford, it was my first time with the Miami showband, and the leader, Joe Tyrrell, asked the manager of the Olympia, ‘What do you think of our new singer?’
“And his answer was, ‘Ah, he’s a bit too slick for the country’.
“I didn’t know what he meant at the time — Waterford’s a city, with great people, but maybe it was because I wasn’t sweating too much.
“I don’t think you could ever be too professional — it shows respect for your audience and your musicians.
“I’ve always made a point of never turning my back on the audience, having jokes on the stage, in case people in the audience think you’re laughing at them. I hate that.”
Rock left the hugely successful Miami to go out on his own at the end of 1972.
Two-and-a-half years later, the country was left in a state of shock when three members of the band, Fran O’Toole, Tony Geraghty and Brian McCoy, were killed in a UVF ambush on the way back from a gig in Banbridge, Co Down. Rock recalls his disbelief on hearing about the attack.
“We used to play at the Galway Races,” says Rock.
“They did the Monday and Tuesday and my band were doing the Wednesday and Thursday. I did the gig on the Wednesday, went to bed and very early the next morning they were hammering on my bedroom door to tell me about the ambush.
“I was shocked, but it didn’t hit me for a few days, the enormity of it. It was incomprehensible.”
For older people, Rock is part of the soundtrack of their lives. He often gets couples telling him how they met at one of his shows.
“They come up and say ‘This is Mary, we met in Abbeyfeale or the Olympia’ or wherever, and I always say, ‘Don’t blame me’.
“They’ll say, ‘You were singing ‘We’ll walk the road of life together, day by day, and we’ve loved each other every step of the way’.”
The singer considers it a privilege to have played such a memorable role in people’s lives.
“It’s so important for me not to forget, walking out on stage, that these are people who’ve supported me for years — and you’ve got to prove it to them all over again that they were right to support you in the beginning, whether it was 50 or 30 years ago or whatever.”
While Rock doesn’t have to deal with the level of hysteria which met his appearances in the 1960s, he still gets plenty of attention from his hardcore fanbase.
“I’m often asked if I get fed up with people coming over to me if I’m having a meal with my wife or something — I always say it’s when they don’t come over to me that I’ll be worried.
“I can’t understand performers or anybody in the public eye who gets annoyed by that. I think it’s sad that any artist says ‘don’t annoy me’.
“I’m proud and honoured that after 50 years in the business, that people want to meet me and talk to me.”
He is looking forward to playing in Cork, a city he has always been fond of, at the end of this month.
“I can’t wait to go on stage at the Opera House, Cork has always been good to me.
“I remember playing in Crosshaven in Cork one St Patrick’s Night and there were 4,000 people there.
“From the stage, all you could see were bodies, you couldn’t see the floor. It was an amazing time.”
His fans will be delighted to hear that Rock is quick to bat away any suggestion that he might call it a day.
“I have no intention of retiring. My audience will dictate that. It’s important to stay busy.”
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